Unless one is Native American, getting a grasp of complex Native American spiritual cosmologies is not easy. And that distinction, which might be called a quality of profound otherness, is in essence what drives a fascinating show recently opened at the Autry National Center of the American West in Griffith Park.
It's a story of survival, of a will to endure in the face of crushing opposition. And it is a story told through beads.
"Floral Journey: Native North American Beadwork" might sound like a simple decorative display of ornamented handiwork. It is certainly that: The show features about 250 designs on mostly 19th and early 20th century moccasins, jackets, dresses, bags, gloves and other items of clothing and accessories — some of them astonishingly beautiful. But it's also much more.
At the entry, the first work is a woman's fringed and tasseled black hood. When laid flat, its shape would be a tall rectangle.
The surface is lavishly adorned with dense, sinuous, tiered patterns of climbing roses and other, less distinguishable flowers, all stitched from glass beads in an assortment of blues, greens, pristine white and delicate pink. These luxurious organic shapes are composed within three rectilinear bands — a wide one framed by two narrow ones.
The bands frame the wearer's head. Together with the floral imagery, the geometric and the organic coexist in perfect harmony.
The brilliant composition constructs a marvelous bridge for a rectilinear object that changes shape when worn over the contour of the head and shoulders of a living, breathing human being. (The long, straight, beaded fringe along the bottom of the hood, plus the chunky, tasseled top-knot of multicolored threads would provide gentle movement, enlivening the transition between geometric and organic.) The formal punch of the hood's physicality turns out to be matched by a conceptual power that might easily be missed by one who is not Native American.
The reason: The flowers speak in code.
The center of each flower is a cruciform shape, each arm rendered of equal size, shape and length. Roses in nature do not look like that.
What does look like that is an ancient, broadly used Native American symbol for the seasonal winds, blowing in the four cardinal directions — north, south, east and west. The symbol partly maps the Native North American worldview, permeated by the shared soul of humanity and nature.
The beaded hood was made during the 1860s by an unidentified James Bay Cree. (James Bay is between contemporary Quebec and Ontario, Canada, at the southern end of Hudson Bay.) Installed opposite the hood is a small pendant of carved seashell; it displays the same cruciform motif as the one at the center of the beaded roses, made much later and far away.
The pendant was crafted in Florida more than 600 years ago, before European arrival and subsequent conquest. That's important, because the floral beadwork designs throughout the exhibition were generally of European origin.
On the Cree hood, the artisan worked a traditional sacred symbol into the heart of what was essentially an alien subject. The spiritual sign, hidden in plain sight, is the pivot around which the elaborate beaded design turns.
The exhibition's able guest curator and catalog author is Lois Sherr Dubin, whose 1987 book "The History of Beads: From 100,000 B.C. to the Present" is the standard reference for its unusual subject. Central to her thesis is the observation that, at least since antiquity if not before, beads worn on the body function as a system of communication. They express social circumstances, political history and religious beliefs.
So what does the James Bay Cree beaded hood communicate? Spiritual faith and cultural continuity, at the least.
The hood is a head-covering made to be worn to church services. In the 19th century, the forced conversion to Christianity of Native North Americans was in high gear.
We don't know whether the unidentified woman who wore it embraced the religion, imported from Europe along with a vision of North America as "the New Eden." But this much is certain: She did hold close her culture's traditional world view. The beads that gives shape to the four cardinal directions represented by the cruciform arms are stitched in spiral patterns; perhaps those spirals are a graphic assertion of nature's eternity.
It is tempting to think that the exquisite beaded design represents an aesthetic form of cultural protection and social resistance, asserted during an era of often cruel upheaval. The 1862 Homestead Act and its near-twin, Canada's 1871 Dominion Act, marked the often bloody beginnings of Euro-American mass migration into territories occupied by Native North Americans. Then as now, few Euro-Americans were able to read the hood's beaded communication, but many Native Americans surely could.
The Autry show does a good job laying out what several of those spiritual symbols are and how they were incorporated into floral beadwork. Object labels include graphic representations of different symbols, so locating them within often elaborate designs on a vest or pouch is simplified.
After a while, a viewer begins to see them on his own. As multiple layers of engagement open up, the beauty of the beaded objects becomes even more vivid.
Needless to say, the territory the show covers is vast, the tribal cultures surveyed are numerous and varied. The show spans the Atlantic to the Pacific.
Glass beads, also a European import, replaced short lengths of dyed porcupine quills previously used for ornamentation. The history of how that happened is also part of the story.
So is the emergence of organic floral motifs into what had been a mostly geometric style, given the straight linearity of quills. And the economics of producing beadwork is not overlooked, including the emergence of a tourist trade.
"Floral Journey" is a broad introduction to a complex and far-flung subject, about which much is being discovered.
But it does include many exceptional examples, thanks in part to the great Native North American collection of the Southwest Museum in Mount Washington, absorbed by the Autry several years ago. Loans, often impressive, have come from 15 museums and 18 private collections. The show remains on view for a year.
Finally, it demonstrates that beadwork remains a lively practice. A large display case along one wall holds 70 decorated moccasins, arranged in a roughly chronological trail. The first is Algonquin, dating from 1800 and adorned with a geometric pattern made from porcupine quills.
The last is also a quill design, made in 2012 by Jamie Okuma, a highly regarded Luiseño/Shoshone-Bannock artist originally from Glendale. But here the cross-pollination is dizzyingly fierce.
Beaded moccasins have morphed into spats. A men's footwear accessory, the spats cover the instep and ankle of a pair of women's black platform and high-heeled boots (shades of French luxury designer Christian Louboutin). Rectilinear geometries coexist with curvilinear floral motifs. Symbols of wealth pile up on images of fecundity. Porcupine quills cohabit with sequins, and leather dallies with plastic.
In the 21st century, Okuma lives in multiple worlds at once. That she does so with such stylish aplomb is bracing to see.